Aug. 08, 2008, 11:53 p.m. (ET)

NEW YORK (AP) NBC opened its Beijing Olympics coverage Friday on a strong, self-assured note, primarily because it recognized that Zhang Yimou was the star.

The Chinese filmmaker created an opening ceremony that produced spellbinding pictures of fireworks, nearly 15,000 cast members acting in concert and an architectural marvel of a stadium that was part of the show's scenery.

NBC's Bob Costas wisely recognized his best role was a supporting player, too, and he marveled the same way most viewers at home did.

"There are and will be issues and disagreements surrounding these games, but I don't see how anyone can dispute the quality of these opening ceremonies," he said. "What a stunning, stunning achievement."

One nice touch was his observation that the choreographed dance moves by 2,008 drummers looked "both awe-inspiring and a little intimidating."

Before the ceremony even began, NBC elder statesman Tom Brokaw adeptly put the Olympics into political context. He even mentioned the controversy over China's role in war-ravaged Darfur, notable because some activists have accused NBC News of paying too little attention to that issue for fear it would bring bad vibes to Olympics coverage.

For the people of China, the start of the games "is a night of great consequence and patriotic pride that cannot be underestimated," he said.

Contrast that with a relative NBC newbie, Chinese expert Joshua Ramo, and his cringe-worthy reference to nervous energy at the National Stadium representing "a nation about to put a match to the fuse of a rocket."

Ramo was brought on to explain the references to Chinese history in Zhang's ceremony and he crowded out Costas' co-host, Matt Lauer. Better to brief Lauer on the show's significance and give the more expert broadcaster as much airtime as you could.

Costas and Lauer felt like they were draining their briefing books of trivia as they narrated the parade of athletes into the stadium. In their defense, there's not much else to do to fill time when the only pictures available were athletes out for a walk.

There are many more hours, and many more stories, to go.

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